Youth-led, not youth-only. (Photo: KAMY)

Climate Action: Youth-Led, Not Youth-Only

Of all the environmental issues, the climate change crisis is touted as being closest in nature to the Covid-19 crisis, requiring the most similar global response. Macaranga’s Taking Stock series begins with this two-parter on climate change and the folks most associated with it – youth.

A PIVOT to digital activism. Postponed plans. Climate change youth activists in Malaysia are figuring out how to navigate uncertainties thrown up by Covid-19 and a new coalition government who has yet to define policy direction.

That youths appear to be leading the climate change charge results from the widespread attention to renowned teenage activist Greta Thunberg and her Fridays for Future student climate strikes.

(Photo: Despite perceptions, climate action is not the purview of youths alone – pic courtesy of KAMY)


“Just because climate change is being discussed by youth, it shouldn’t necessarily be viewed as a ‘youth issue’,” says 25-year-old activist Nur Syahirah Khanum. She is replying to my question of whether climate change is the purview of youths in Malaysia.

“Climate change is an existential issue for the current generation and the future generation. The current generation very much consists of elder citizens riding on the hopes of the young, which is incredibly unfair,” says Syahirah, better known as Eira.

Eira belongs to the Malaysian Youth Delegation (MYD), a youth-led climate movement focusing on raising awareness about climate policies among Malaysians and represents local youth at international climate conferences.

This future that climate change is threatening is not just 10 to 15 years away, Eira adds. “It is 5 years, 2 years, 1 year away: the older generation cannot detach themselves from responsibility.”

‘Youth’ in Malaysia is defined as people between 18 and 35. But most government youth programmes target the 1825 group. The United Nations age definition is 1824.

Worse, she says, big businesses and politicians are misappropriating both youth concern and climate change issues with scant regard to meaningful commitments to change and action.

Such misappropriation is hampering national progress on climate change action, adds Ili Nadiah Dzulfakar, programme coordinator of another climate youth group, Klima Action Malaysia (KAMY). KAMY empowers grassroots communities and is demanding a climate emergency declaration in Malaysia.

The young activist says insincerity and politicking are also turning off youths from participating in climate action.

What’s more, labelling climate change a youth issue disregards the environmental movement foundations of Malaysia’s climate action.

Climate activism has its roots in and continues to be linked to broader environmental movements. (Photo: KAMY)

“Climate activism in Malaysia took root long before the recent global climate strikes, which only emerged in the last 3 years,” Nadiah points out.

“For instance, many other grassroots groups and communities have worked diligently on climate-related issues such as forest protection, indigenous rights, etcetera.

“Today’s climate activism in Malaysia is built on these frameworks, with a more directed usage of the term ‘krisis iklim’ (climate crisis).”

In fact, both groups show disarming levels of humility when it comes to their activism. Both pepper their interviews with “we need to learn” and “we have to collaborate.”

“We value diversity and inclusivity to pursue our long-term aim,” says Nadiah. “Interdisciplinary collaborations that value local perspectives in a global, complex issue, are critical to filling in knowledge gaps.”

Localising complex global issues related to climate change is key to effectiveness, says KAMY’s Nadiah (second from right). (Photo: KAMY)

KAMY and its partners spent all of last year putting together the Climate Emergency Action Coalition (Gabungan Darurat Iklim Malaysia). This comprises 17 grassroots communities ranging from environmental, women’s, student and human rights NGOs, to farmers and indigenous communities.

Likewise, MYD is a member of several coalitions.

Notable among them is the Malaysian Climate Change Group, comprising seasoned NGOs, the Environmental Protection Society Malaysia, the Centre for Environment, Technology and Development Malaysia, the Malaysian Nature Society, WWF Malaysia, Global Environment Centre and the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation Malaysia (Melaka).

“There’s a lot to learn from the more experienced people,” says MYD’s Eira. “As youth, it’s our responsibility to learn… At MYD, there are always discussions with other parties to figure out how to talk about something technical or ways to create awareness or commit to climate action.”

How the youth swing

Looking ahead, youth concerns and opinions will be steering the nation as never before, following a bill in July 2019 that lowered the voting age to 18 years old.

The 2018 general election saw almost 15 million registered voters. Come the next general election, due in 2023, 7.8 million new voters aged 18–21 will determine the next government.

Groups like MYD and KAMY want climate change to be on the table.

They are the most prominent youth-led climate action groups in the country. Both comprise 18 to 35 year-old students and young professionals in Malaysia and abroad.

Participating in climate fora at local and international levels is a way for youth to engage and learn. (Photo: MYD)

Both engage in policy-influencing and awareness-raising; capacity-building was a key focus last year.

Their demands for action are based on science and data, including Malaysian national reports and development plans, UNFCCC decisions and documents, and guidelines and assessments by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

They are also informed by participating in stakeholder and youth meetings and international climate campaign approaches. However, they are at pains to emphasise that they localise their approaches.

MYD communicates in English and their audience is largely educated urbanites in the Klang Valley. KAMY primarily uses Bahasa Malaysia to also reach other segments of society throughout the country.

Social media reach

Using the tools of their generation, the groups’ social media outreach is stimulating and impactful. They also employ a variety of other approaches. These range from direct emails and advocacy to targeted workshops and public seminars.

“People try to map out what type of activism is important. But actually, it’s just important that you take action,” said Nadiah.

Activating youth has its challenges, chief among which is the lack of solidarity.


Says Eira, “unintentionally, many NGOs working towards the same goals are often working in silos. So the narrative can be fragmented because everyone has different perspectives on how climate change is going to affect them.

“There is a tendency to conflate the issue they are most concerned with, for example, plastic waste management, which is not necessarily a climate change issue, but they then miss the point.”

This becomes a stumbling block when NGOs pressure the government on climate matters. “It becomes harder for the government to take action and then the group doesn’t feel they are being listened to. Fragmentation also happens at government level.”

Important to work together, says Eira Khanum (left). Here a A MYD Post-COP25 briefing also features a government representative and a fellow NGO (Third World Network) (far right and second from right) (Photo: SL Wong)

Says KAMY’s Nadiah: “We need to share best practices, have a platform to learn the vital things you need to know before you start something.” These include skills to organise, collect credible data and negotiate.

Both MYD and KAMY are working to overcome this by growing the pool and networks of youth activists.

Now, they are adapting and re-strategising after the almost complete shutdown of business-as-usual followed by a tentative period of getting back to business.

“We need to leverage this situation,” says KAMY’s Nadiah. “Covid-19 has done more than what the global strikes have done, for example, in putting transportation on hold.”

Eira personally finds that “the pandemic has been eye-opening because change was instantaneous. It’s an opportunity for people, businesses and governments to transform. So now, how do you divest and invest in something sustainable? You need a lot of transformation, but it can happen.”

Part 2: Strikes and Science How KAMY and MYD are addressing climate change in the coming year.

This is part of Macaranga‘s series, ‘Taking Stock’, where we examine how environmental sectors in Malaysia are responding to Covid-19 and a new government.